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Dick and Jon's Excellent Adventure

On May 12, 2020 Dick and Jon set out on a quest to locate and identify an ancient object seen on the Hop River Trail, somewhere in the village of Coventry or Columbia. The challenge came from the fair maiden Annie, and in spite of the plague sweeping the country, our dynamic duo set out to answer the challenge.

What Annie saw.
(Click to enlarge images.)

Two of the objects she saw were somewhere between Hop River Road and King's Road. Were they related to the trail or to the railroad that passed that way in times long by?

Dick in battle gear readies for the quest.

Dick has a passion for railroads and experience exploring the area in an earlier search for lost mills. Jon was just up for a day out.

Uncertain where to find the ancient objects they began at the Hop River Road trail crossing. There they came upon a local countryman who regularly patrols the path. Dick interrogated him, but he admitted to no knowledge of the objects in question. Were they here or did Annie trip out and imagine them?

Dick spots something from Roses Bridge.
(See arrow.)

After a brief exploration of this site our heroes thought that if these were railroad related they might be closer to the Kingdom of Willimantic so they journeyed to King's Road. There they travelled up the path until old battle wounds slowed Dick. Perhaps this was a lost cause. In the other direction the old bridge was too dangerous to cross.

Before abandoning the quest Dick and Jon decided to make a quick survey of a middle path - Roses Bridge Road. They nearly missed the trail as it was hidden from view below the road. But having come this far they at least had to take a look. From the bridge the old railway went off into the distance from both sides. Nothing of interest was evident until sharp-eyed Dick spotted something a hundred yards to the north. It was impossible to tell what the object was - natural or man made - and there was no obvious path down.

The beautiful Hop River runs near the trail.

Tired and despondent they headed home. Dick on errands to Willimantic and Hebron, Jon to explore another site. But first Jon wanted to see what the Hop River Trail had to offer compared to the trail near his home. So back to where they began at Hop River Road and he headed South on the trail.

Unlike the trail near home which was busy with hikers, he was alone here and he began walking. Passing near the swollen river, past meadows, swamps and old stone walls. Cardinals, hawks, red headed woodpecker and blue jays flitted about with no houses, vehicles or people to disturb them. Mesmerized he continued on and on until his joints began to complain. Time to return they said. But how much farther might it be to that bridge? Could he be close - maybe just one more curve.

And lo, as he was about to turn back he could see the bridge, a tunnel from this perspective, in the distance.

Coming this far he had to check the object that Dick saw. And what to his wondering eyes should appear but the object that Annie had seen! A close examination showed it was identical.

Approaching the tunnel - something is there.

That's Annie's object, but what was it for? Perhaps it held a signal for trains approaching the station - but it was several miles away. A mystery.

From the trail.
That's it!
Close up.

But Dick had a theory, one of several possibilities he mentioned as they began the day. In olden days a brakeman worked atop the train cars, a dangerous job. To give them some protection a device called a telltale was placed before low bridges to warn the brakeman to duck. The metal support had been cut so it was uncertain what it held.

But if this was a telltale there should be a similar object on the other side of the tunnel for trains going north.

With building excitement and apprehension Jon slowly approached the bridge ever watchful for trolls or thugs. Emerging from the other side he at first saw nothing, but walking a hundred yards he saw another object, lower and hidden in the shadows. Yes! It was a match of the first object.

From the South; the second object.
This one is closer to the trail and deeper.
But has the same cross section.

Success - they were indeed telltales.

A telltale or tell-tale, also known as a bridge warning, is a series of ropes suspended over the tracks to give warning to a person on the roof of the train that the train is approaching a low-clearance obstacle, such as a tunnel or a bridge. A standard tell-tale design had ropes on 3-inch centers for a width of 8 feet over the track, the bottom of the ropes 6" lower than the height of the obstruction, and placed at least 100 feet before the obstruction. They would warn a man, even if his back was to the tunnel. When the track was torn up the signal poles were cut off.

Why was a crewman on the roof of the train? Prior to the modern era of air and pneumatic brakes a crewman known as a brakeman was required to scale the tops of freight cars, while the train was at-speed or in motion, and manually set the each car's braking system. Obviously, this practice was not only tedious but also extremely dangerous making the position of brakeman one of the most dangerous within the industry at that time. The purpose of the telltale was to warn the man, who was usually predisposed at the time and concentrating on the job at hand, that an impending obstacle was imminent down the line. Thanks to the invention of the airbrake the practice was ended and so has the need for telltales. Interestingly, however, many of the structures could still be found along railroad tracks for decades and even today you can still find a few here and there; a historical reminder of the early years of the industry and its dangers. (american-rails.html)

Following are three examples of single pole telltales. Old photo is from Dick Symonds collection.

Returning triumphant Dick was waiting to hear the news and they rejoiced before heading home for well earned naps. It was a good day.

Epilogue

The word 'telltale' goes back to the 16th Century and has a number of meanings and uses. The obvious one is a person who informs others, but the ones most fitting here are 'something that indicates or reveals information' or 'an outward indication of something concealed.'

My favorite is from the saying, 'dead men don't tell tales' so that this safety device, if heeded, allows the brakeman to continue 'telling tales.' Okay, I made that up but still like it.

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